About Ferns And Horsetails

Common Bracken (Pteridium aquilinum)
Common Bracken (Pteridium aquilinum)

Ferns and horsetails are living fossils in that they are from the earliest forms of plant life on earth. They are vascular plants which prefer moist, shady environments, and reproduce via airborne spores or underground rhizomes. Ferns and horsetails are a monophyletic group, and the closest living relatives to seed bearing plants.

Hart’s-tongue Fern (Asplenium scolopendrium)
Hart’s-tongue Fern (Asplenium scolopendrium) spores

Class: Polypodiopsida  (Ferns)
Ferns are a very ancient family of plants, and have been around for some 360 million years, since the Mesozoic Era.They existed on the planet some 200 million years before the evolution of flowering plants. Ferns are vascular plants which mainly grow in moist, shady environments under the protective canopy of trees, such as in woods and forests, or near streams or in ditches. They do not have seeds or flowers, but reproduce by spores, and go through an intermediate stage called a gametophyte.

Water Horsetail (Equisetum fluviatile)
Water Horsetail (Equisetum fluviatile)

Class: Equisetopsida (Horsetails)
The horsetails are now represented by only one genus Equisetum, and are amongst the oldest plants on earth. Fossils have been discovered in coal beds of tree-sized horsetails which grew in great and vast forests dating back to the Paleozoic Era, some hundreds of millions of years ago. It is from these ancient forests that coal was formed, and is mined today as fossil fuel.

Field Horsetail (Equisetum arvense)
Field Horsetail (Equisetum arvense)

Horsetails produce spores in cone-like structures. The spores develop into underground prothalli which produce new plants in the same manner as fern prothalli do. They also spread via tuber-like rhizomes beneath the earth.They are unwelcome in pastures due to their high levels of silica in their tissues, which are poisonous to cows and sheep, and other livestock.

They are called horsetails due to their branched structure which can resemble a horse’s tail.

Broad Buckler Fern

Dryopteris austriaca

Broad Buckler Fern (Dryopteris austriaca)

The fronds of the Broad Buckler Fern are deep green, are ovate-triangular in shape, and are 3-times pinnately divided. The stalks have dark-centred scales. The fronds are broader and longer than the Narrow Buckler Fern (Dryopteris carthusiana). Frond length up to 1m.

Broad Buckler Fern (Dryopteris austriaca)

Spore ripening time July to September. Found in hedgerows, scrub, damp woodland, heathland, shady rock ledges and amongst rocks. A native species which is common and widespread throughout Britain.

Broad Buckler Fern (Dryopteris austriaca)

Photographs of Broad Buckler Fern (Dryopteris austriaca), taken May and December 2012, local river, Staffordshire. © Pete Hillman 2012. Camera used Nikon Coolpix P500.

Male Fern

Dryopteris filix-mas

Male Fern (Dryopteris filix-mas)

This is a large, clump-forming fern of which its fronds remain green throughout the winter months and is semi-evergreen. The fronds are of an upright, slender nature, and bipinnately (2-times) divided. The pinnules have rounded tips and have serrated margins. The stalks have brownish scales. Frond length up to 1.2m. Plant height 1.2m. Plant spread 1m.

Male Fern (Dryopteris filix-mas)

Spore ripening time August to November. Found in woodland, ditches, and on banks, favouring damp and shady areas. It is a common and widespread species throughout Britain.

Male Fern (Dryopteris filix-mas)

Male Fern (Dryopteris filix-mas)

Photographs of Male Fern (Dryopteris filix-mas), taken May and December 2012, local river, Staffordshire. © Pete Hillman 2012. Camera used Nikon Coolpix P500.

Hart’s-tongue Fern

Asplenium scolopendrium

Hart’s-tongue Fern (Asplenium scolopendrium)

This evergreen fern is a fresh green with undivided fronds which form clumps. Dark brown spore cases are borne in rows on the underside of the fronds. Frond length 60cm.

Hart’s-tongue Fern (Asplenium scolopendrium)

They inhabit damp and shady habitats, like woodland and river banks, also rocks and walls. Common and widespread.

Hart’s-tongue Fern (Asplenium scolopendrium)

Photographs of Hart’s-tongue Fern (Asplenium scolopendrium), taken August 2011 on coastal pathway, Saundersfoot, Wales. © Pete Hillman 2011. Camera used Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ38.

Wall-rue Spleenwort

Asplenium ruta-muraria

Wall-rue Spleenwort (Asplenium ruta-muraria)

A delicate little evergreen fern with blueish-green or olive-green, club-shaped leaflets with toothed margins. Brown spores can be seen beneath the bipinnate (twice divided) fronds. Frond length up to 12cm.

Wall-rue Spleenwort (Asplenium ruta-muraria)

Found growing in the crevices of old walls or rocks, mainly where there is limestone. Widespread but commonest in W Britain and Ireland.

Photographs of Wall-rue Spleenwort (Asplenium ruta-muraria), taken December 2012, local canal bridge, Staffordshire. © Pete Hillman 2012. Camera used Nikon Coolpix P500.

Maidenhair Spleenwort

Asplenium trichomanes

Maidenhair Spleenwort (Asplenium trichomanes)

This little fern grows in tufts and has dark brownish to blackish-stemmed, pinnate fronds with pairs of small, oval leaflets. Frond length up to 15cm.

Maidenhair Spleenwort (Asplenium trichomanes)

Found growing in the crevices of old walls or rocks. A native species which is widespread but commonest in the west of Britain.

Photographs of Maidenhair Spleenwort (Asplenium trichomanes), taken August 2015, Torquay, Devon. © Pete Hillman 2015. Camera used Nikon D3200, with Sigma 105mm macro lens.

Rustyback

Asplenium ceterach

Rustyback (Asplenium ceterach)

The thick, leathery fronds are pinnately divided into rounded lobes and form clumps. The back of the frond is covered in rusty-coloured scales. Frond length up to 20cm.

Found growing in the crevices of lime-rich stone walls or rocks, especially in the mortar of old walls. It can withstand drought and will curl itself up. A native species which is widespread but common only in the south-west of England, west Wales and Ireland.

Photographs of Rustyback (Asplenium ceterach), taken August 2015, Torquay, Devon. © Pete Hillman 2015. Camera used Nikon D3200, with Sigma 105mm macro lens.

Common Polypody

Polypodium vulgare

Common Polypody (Polypodium vulgare)

The fronds are flat and oblong, with lobes fairly equal in size. They are dark green and are 1-pinnate. The sori are circular. Frond length 10 to 40cm.

Common Polypody (Polypodium vulgare)

Found on walls, rocks and trees. Also found in damp, shady places like woodland banks and gorges. Common and widespread throughout, although mostly found in Western Britain and Ireland.

Photographs of Common Polypody (Polypodium vulgare), taken April 2013, Llandudno, Wales. © Pete Hillman 2013. Camera used Nikon Coolpix P500.

Common Bracken

Pteridium aquilinum

Also called ‘Brake Fern’, this is a common and easily recognised fern. The stiff, triangular fronds are 3-times pinnate. They sprout individually straight from the rhizomes which can have a far-reaching spread. The spore cases are borne around the leaf margins. In autumn the fronds turn reddish-brown and die back to ground over winter until in spring when new fronds grow back. Plant height 1.5m and over.

Spore ripening time July to August. Found in woodland, heathland, grassland and hillsides. It prefers slightly acidic soil and dappled shade, but can tolerate full sun. A native species, and is common and widespread throughout Britain.

Bracken can be quite a serious problem in some areas because of its underground spreading nature via its rhizomes which can be as much as 400m in length. They can invade agricultural land and gardens where it can be hard to eradicate making it a noxious weed. The rhizomes can even survive fire. Bracken is poisonous to humans and livestock, and if ingested may cause oesophageal and stomach cancer.

Photographs taken June 2013 and December 2015, local woodland margin, Staffordshire.